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Math, Science and Social Skills Combine for Fascinating Career

House Chamber
Tom Williams | Getty Images
House Chamber

As the first woman to lead the US House of Representatives Office of Inspector General, I’m probably supposed to say that I had to blaze a tough trail and had to break through a male-imposed glass ceiling. But that’s not the case. What I have discovered is that the American dream is alive and well. If you work hard enough, you can be anything, regardless of your gender or background.

Many people don’t even know what an Inspector General does. We are auditors. I am also not the only Inspector General. Each major department in the federal government has an Inspector General. We audit all of the standard financial and administrative functions that any business needs to run effectively and efficiently, such as payroll, HR and information technology. It just happens that the business I support is the U.S. House of Representatives. Working in the Inspector General community has been fascinating and rewarding. Even after 20 years of progressing up the ranks, I come into work every day feeling like I can make a difference.

I have to admit I did not start out in accounting or auditing. In fact, I started college as a science geek, majoring in pre-med/biology. Then I discovered that dissecting animals was not for me, so a counselor steered me into accounting.

When I graduated and took my first job at a field office for the Department of DefenseInspector General, it was definitely a man’s world. In fact, I was part of a group of three women grads who were brought on at the same time; we were the first female auditors the field office ever hired.

That made for a bit of a culture clash and many memorable moments. I still recall one of my first team leaders floating the suggestion that if I spent more time on finding a husband, I could stay home and raise a family and free up the job for a male auditor. Because it was already the early 1990s and his thinking was so undeniably dinosaur-like, I was more amused than offended. I promptly ignored his advice and got on with my career.

"I still recall one of my first team leaders floating the suggestion that if I spent more time on finding a husband, I could stay home and raise a family and free up the job for a male auditor. I promptly ignored his advice and got on with my career." -Inspector General, U.S. House of Representatives, Theresa Grafenstine,

One of the biggest challenges in the audit field that I have found over the years is not exclusive to gender, although pervading stereotypes might say otherwise. It is the need for strong interpersonal skills to be able to effectively communicate and relate with people in the functions you are auditing. Having interpersonal skills is the difference between being a C student and being someone who can make a big difference. Auditors who think they have all of the answers and develop their recommendations in isolation end up with recommendations that make problems worse because they don’t really understand the environment. It also feeds the perception that auditors are the enemy instead of a partner. I’m sure many people think women would be better at this because they can be stereotyped as “nurturers”, but it’s a skill that can be equally lacking in either gender.

Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report
Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report

Starting out when the field was still male-dominated meant there were no senior female role models. But I have been fortunate to be mentored by male colleagues throughout my career, which is something I try to pay forward.

If I could give only two pieces of advice to young women starting out in this field, this is what I would tell them:

  • Get involved in professional organizations. One that I am very active in is ISACA, a global organization for information audit, security and governance professionals that has broadened my network tremendously. Through ISACA, I forged friendships with fellow volunteers when we were all in junior positions. Years later, now that we all have “fancy titles,” I can reach out to pick their brains about a new audit tool or the risks of an emerging technology. But it shouldn’t be just about what you can “get” from volunteering. I’m still actively involved with my local chapter. At this point in my career, it’s not about what ISACA can do for my career advancement. It’s about giving back to a profession that has given me so much and helping someone else find their way on the path.
  • Do not shy away from information technology. The IT audit field has many job openings and offers good pay, but it is still a bit of a curiosity to be a female IT auditor. Any auditor, male or female, who can combine sound technology knowledge with interpersonal skills can truly shoot for the stars.

There is much talk about why more women and minorities don’t pursue the so-called STEM careers(science, technology, engineering and math). One reason may be a lack of role models, which is why I think it is important for women in my profession to be vocal advocates of mentoring, be active in professional associations and get involved with young people. Math and science truly can be fun. We need to show them that the world is a huge puzzle and math and science are the keys to finding all of the pieces of the puzzle, making it the adventure of their lives.

Theresa Grafenstine, CISA, CGEIT, CRISC, CPA, CIA, CGAP, is the fourth person and first woman to be appointed as the Inspector General of the U.S. House of Representatives. She has been with the House OIG since 1998. She is also on ISACA’s World Congress: INSIGHTS 2012 Task Force.